Important Spring for ‘These' Gators

The Florida Gators begin the Will Muschamp era on the practice field starting Wednesday. Not many would deny former Gators head coach Urban Meyer recruited well at Florida, but he also recruited players to suit the schemes he wanted to run on both offense and defense. The transition of a lot of players is a big part of what this spring is all about.

Florida has a roster full of players to run a spread option offense and a traditional 4-3 defense. Will Muschamp emphatically stated that he will run a pro-style offense and wants to be multiple on defense to be able to show a 4-3 or 3-4 look up front. This spring is big for quite a few players, but here are some that will go a long way in March and April in shaping the success of the 2011 squad.

With Charlie Weis in charge of Florida's offense and the quarterbacks in particular, the Gators are expecting to get much better production out of the position in 2011 than they did in 2010. Weis has a history of coaching up professional and college players to their potentials and he will be asked to do the same at Florida.

Here, we will be talking about individuals that will define the 2011 squad with their play in the spring, the quarterback was the one spot where we cannot put all the eggs in one basket and as is usually the case, will be the most important piece of the puzzle for Muschamp when the fall comes around.

Therefore, the battle between senior returning starter John Brantley (6-3, 220) and true freshman Jeff Driskel (6-3, 235) at the position will be epic this spring and one that will go a long way in shaping the overall outcome of the 2011 season.

Brantley had as bad a year as could be expected for a quarterback in a system that did not fit his skill set. Although Meyer and company tried to change things up, injuries, bad play, and other players that did not fit in certain places on the offense were at least part of Brantley's problems in 2010.

This isn't to say that Brantley didn't deserve a great deal of the blame, but we watched him perform very well all spring in 2010 and most thought that practice time would carry over into 2011. This is a big spring for Brantley whose skill set is perfect for what Weis wants in an offense.

Driskel oddly enough would be a phenom in the spread option with his size, speed, and physical ability to make plays with his hands and his feet. He was recruited by Meyer to take over the reins very soon after his arrival which happens to be this spring -- he skipped the second half of his senior year of high school.

His athletic ability isn't all that Driskel brings to the table. His ability to make all the throws that a quarterback needs to make earned him the title of the best quarterback in the land in high school for 2010 as the Elite 11 quarterback of the year. The award signifies the best quarterback in the traditional sense and Driskel has the added caveat of also being a top flight athlete with the ball in his hands.

If the quarterback is going to fire on all cylinders, he will be relying on his protection to give him time. With this in mind, junior offensive tackle Xavier Nixon (6-6, 265) will need to try and return to the form that made him a freshman all-SEC player as a left tackle for the Gators. Nixon was injured in the preseason and when he returned to play in 2010, he was moved to the right side and didn't perform well. One little nugget of information that needs to be watched is the weight of Nixon who finished the season in the 270-pound range and has been listed near 250 at some points in the off-season. He needs to show up near 300 pounds to be effective in the SEC.

One player that probably loves the offensive change is much heralded sophomore receiver Andre Debose (5-11, 185). Debose was all-everything coming out of high school in 2008, but a hamstring surgery sidelined him all of his freshman season in 2009. In 2010 he wasn't played a lot but was also nursing injuries. Still, his movement back and forth from the slot to an outside receiver position probably derailed any hope of him really learning the offense like he should know it.

Debose showed his straight ahead speed in 2010 scoring twice on kickoff returns and easily outrunning everyone on the field. In this offense he won't be asked to block as much and the differentiation between the different receiver spots should be minimal making it easier to get on the field at multiple positions. The talent is there, utilizing that talent correctly is the job of the offensive coaches.

Maybe the most dynamic player in the entire 2010 offense was quarterback Trey Burton (6-3, 240). Burton will be a true sophomore in 2011, but he won't be a quarterback. Where he will end up exactly isn't set in stone to start the spring, but getting the ball in his hands seems like something that the Florida staff should really try and make happen. Weis believes he can line up at several places in the offense. Burton's overall speed, strength, and agility make him a special athlete and his hunger for the end zone make him a player that should be used on offense and in a way that takes advantage of those skills.

Playmaking receivers were few and far between in 2010, so finding one is very important for the upcoming season. As a high school senior from Pahokee in 2009, Chris Dunkley (5-11, 185) was a five star prospect that was able to make unbelievable plays and do it as a blur on the field. Dunkley has the shake and good size to be a big time player in any offense and needs to help provide a spark this spring to get this offense off the mat and on the scoreboard in the fall.

On defense, Muschamp wants to utilize multiple looks to take advantage of personnel. In other words, he wants to find a group of players that can move from a three down, four linebacker look to a four down, three linebacker look without changing the personnel on the field.

With that in mind, junior NOSE Omar Hunter (5-11, 295) and freshman NOSE Leon Orr (6-5, 320) may be the most important pieces of the puzzle. Hunter is the lone returning guy on defense that can be called a nose tackle and in a 3-4 look. Orr has moved back to defense and has the legitimate size in the middle to be a force against bigger teams up front. The NOSE is so very important to take up space and occupy offensive linemen up front. Hunter had a decent sophomore year, but he will be asked to do a lot more in this position than he had on his plate in 2010.

A big spring from senior defensive end William Green (6-4, 265) would go far in helping solidify the Florida defense as well. Green came to Florida with a lot of accolades. He hasn't played bad, but he also hasn't lived up to the billing. He's never been asked to be the man on defense, but he needs to assume that role in the spring and carry it over to the fall.

One of the more anticipated coming out parties this spring and in the fall will likely be for sophomore Ronald Powell (6-4, 250). The hybrid pass rusher/linebacker should be a key part of the multiple look that Muschamp is looking for. Powell came to UF in 2011 as the nation's top recruit out of high school and although he didn't play much in 2010, he was always noticed when he was on the field. Pass rushing will be at a premium as well as size at linebacker and Powell has a chance to represent both at different times in the Muschamp defense.

The only thing that sophomore Matt Elam (5-11, 215) will have on his plate is replacing all-American Ahmad Black who may go down as the best strong safety in Florida history. Black wasn't the biggest or the fastest, but he made plays. Elam is a super athlete with size and speed and the five-star high school pedigree that made him one of the most sought after prospects in the country in the 2010 class.

Elam played a lot as a freshman in the nickel against bigger receivers and like Black he loves to stick his nose in the fire in the middle of the defense and plays the game as close to the line of scrimmage as he can get away with. Black had the instincts and pure tackling style that made him special, Elam needs to show those same things this spring.

With Janoris Jenkins seemingly improbable return for his senior season, the cornerback spot opposite Jenkins now becomes very important to settle. Junior Jeremy Brown (5-11, 185) had a great start to the 2010 season then an injury slowed him and he wasn't the same when he returned from that injury. Blessed with the ability to jump routes with the best of them, Brown is susceptible to being burned and learned the hard way a few times last season. Still, he leads a talented corner group and can make a statement this spring that would really solidify the secondary moving into the 2011 season.

There are many more important pieces of the puzzle to be found for this 2011 squad and the spring will be as important for the new coaching staff to figure out who the best players are, as it is for the players to make that impression on the staff. It is an exciting time at Florida and one very important spring.

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